Interview with Scott Hawkins author of The Library at Mount Char

Scott Hawkins is forty-five and works as a computer programmer.  He’s been a member of AbsoluteWrite since 2006.  He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. Scott has also been instrumental in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now.

What was different about writing and publishing a novel versus writing and publishing a technical book?

Just about everything was different. For me, writing the technical books was very much like writing a couple dozen research papers back-to-back. That can be satisfying in its own way, but it’s not really the sort of thing I’d do for fun.

cover of Scott Hawkins The Library At Mount Char
Scott Hawkins. The Library at Mount Char

When fiction writing is going well I think it’s the best thing ever. I wrote the bulk of The Library at Mount Char over a period of maybe three months, in the summer of 2012. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days. On weekends I’d get up at two or three in the morning and write until six at night. In that period it was like the floor dropped out from under me—I was totally immersed, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up.

That said, there was a pretty long preparation period leading up to those three months. That part had a lot in common with technical writing. It was very much a “drink coffee and stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead” process.

What’s your writing environment like ? (Where do you write? What tools ?)

I just moved into a new place with a semi-finished room in the basement. That’s where my office is.  I work on a Windows 7 PC. I can’t really type on a tablet or laptop—my hands are too big.

Scott Hawkins' writing space

Mount Char was done with MS-Word, a spreadsheet, and a bunch of Miquel Rius spiral bound notebooks. Miquel Rius makes great stuff—the only place I know to get them is Amazon, but they have plastic covers and color coded graph paper. I use Uniden micro-fine rollerball pens (black ink) and/or Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencils with HB lead for handwriting notes.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener. It’s got some neat features, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. Probably this is just inertia because I’ve been using MS-Word for so long.

What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner, a pantser, do you keep notes on characters . . .

I generally start by trying to make up random scenes without worrying too much about how it all fits together. I don’t work in order. With Mount Char, the first couple scenes I came up with were a guy going out for a jog, and a neighborhood picnic that went bad. Those ended up pretty much dead center and near the end, respectively. I also do little character sketches, or notes on setting, stuff like that. When I’ve got around forty thousand words of scenes that feel like they have a pulse, I lay them out and try to arrange them into some sort of narrative.

Then it’s a question of adding connective tissue to hold the scenes together, and polishing.  Does each character want at least two things, preferably conflicting things?  Do they sound distinct from each other?  I try to make sure that no one likes anyone else—remember how in Empire Strikes Back every time two characters came on screen they’d hug, or whatever?  I hated that. I thought the first Star Wars where they all hated each other was a much stronger script.

I also try to be absolutely ruthless about cutting stuff that doesn’t work. The slush pile does not give a crap how much time you spent trying. The only thing that matters is whether it works. I have literally 70,000 words of different versions of the first chapter of Mount Char.  That’s not an exaggeration. I worked on nothing else but that one chapter for something like six months.

The last thing I did before submitting Mount Char was cut.  The completed draft came in at something like 155,000 words. I read somewhere that the upper limit for a first novel is 110,000 words.  That turns out to be misinformation, but the exercise of cutting helped the book a lot. I eventually got it down to 125,000ish, and it was much, much stronger. Going forward, I’m going to make a point of cutting every first draft by twenty percent.

Does it feel different to you to write code versus writing story?

Oh yeah, totally different.  They’re complementary skill sets, I think—I can get done with a long day of programming and be totally rested and ready for some fiction work. The reverse is true as well—I’ve been a full-time writer for the last few months, and I’ve noticed an itch to do Javascript on the weekends.

What do you wish you had known before you wrote The Library at Mount Char that you know now?

I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion.

My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.

I think the ability to write viscerally horrifying stuff is a useful tool to have in the chest.  I’d argue that violent scenes tend to focus the reader’s attention in a way that few other things can. But going forward I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of the likely effect a scene is having in an average reader. Stuff that I think of as a 5 or 6 out of 10 might seem more like an 8 or 9.

That said, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have toned the violence in Mount Char down much more. Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong.

What kind of background reading or research did you do for The Library at Mount Char?

Well, in the early stages I watched a lot of femme fatale movies—Malice, The Last Seduction, Body Heat. You can kind of see that influence in the first couple of chapters, but it didn’t really play out the way I was initially expecting. It never does, honestly. For me research mostly just confirms that the brilliant idea I thought I had was in fact kind of dumb

But it is fun.

Is there a soundtrack or playlist for The Library at Mount Char?

As a matter of fact, yes.  You’re the first person to ask that.  I’m really not a very music-oriented guy, but I have seven dogs, all of them big.  A lot of times when I’m writing I like to put on something to drown out the ongoing squirrel alerts.

I have exactly one song per chapter, and I listen to it on continuous repeat—usually for several hours at a time. I like it loud. My wife has asked that I do this with headphones on.

The chapter where you meet the librarians was Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. The chapter where the burglar gets introduced was Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman. The big fight between the protagonist and the antagonist was Dead Man’s Party, which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more times than Danny Elfman at this point. Crazy on You by Heart—the live version—got a whole lot of play. Towards the end I made an MP3 that had just the first 45 seconds or so, and listened to that on repeat.

And just because I really want to know, is Petey OK?

As it happens, I’m working on a short story for my Website that answers that very question.  SPOILER ALERT.

Petey’s fine.  He ended up with a lady in Detroit who’s taking good care of him.

Any particular books about writing that you’ve found helpful?

Dozens. I’ll buy any on-writing book that I see.  Some are better than others, but I always learn at least a little something.

Far and away the very best one I’ve found is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. If you want to write commercial fiction I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Maass is himself a successful literary agent, and he puts out a lot of writing books.  They’re all good.

A couple of my other favorites are the Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

I also think it’s important to learn about the business side of things—that’s what brought me to Absolute Write in the first place. Janet Reid’s blog and QueryShark are both excellent for getting a feel about how the business works.

What have you read in the last year or so that you were impressed by?

For fun I read a lot of nonfiction, business books and biographies. There’s one about the collapse of Enron called The Smartest Guys in the Room that I really liked. Michael Lewis’ latest, Flash Boys, was interesting. Regardless of whether you’re a Mike Tyson fan, I think everyone will agree he had an interesting ride. His biography Undisputed Truth was a good read.

As far as fiction, The Girl With All the Gifts had an interesting take on zombie stories. There was a novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill together called “In the Tall Grass” that was as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them—they were not screwing around with that one. That is a horror story.

Last year I picked up one called The Orphan Master’s Son at the airport, of all places. It’s kind of a fable about modern life in North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize. My God that book is amazing—it’s like getting hit by a sledgehammer every twenty minutes. It’s absolutely pitch black dark, but everyone who aspires to put words in a row for a living should read it. That is how it is done.

What do you wish someone would ask you that they haven’t?

“So, Scott, can you tell us a bit more about your wife’s role in the process?”

Thanks for asking! My wife Heather truly is a key player in this, and I rarely get a chance to give her props. She’s not a writer herself, but she reads a ton, probably more than I do, and she can point out the exact paragraph where something stops working. That by itself is ridiculously valuable, but it’s also true that she isn’t one to mince words. I’m one of those people who if you say something like “this is good, but” I often don’t hear anything after the ‘but.’ So having someone with a good eye who’s prepared to be, ahem, candid, is a gift from the angels.

When she and I first started dating I had a first-draft-ish version of my third novel. I kind of weaseled her into reading it. She made it maybe twenty pages in, then it set it down. Eventually I asked her what the problem was and she said “well, the first bit was okay, but right about here—” points to a particular page “—it started to suck.”  That’s more or less a direct quote.

I said “hmm.”

Then she said “fix it and I’ll take another look.” We went back and forth for a while about what, exactly, was sucking, then I took another pass. Eventually it got to a point where that book got a bit of love from agents—not quite enough to take me on as a client, but I did have a couple of “send me what you come up with next” golden tickets.

I gave her the draft of Mount Char on Labor Day a couple of years ago.  When she said it was good, I knew she meant it.  And when she said the third act sucked, and I needed to fix it, I knew she meant that too.

What’s your favorite charity?

My guest dogs come from We Are Rescue. We Are Rescue is a no-kill animal rescue organization

You can read more about The Library at Mount Char at Boing Boing, and Kirkus Reviews. And here’s Scott Hawkins at Whatever.

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